About that playoff format

Posted By on September 29, 2011 9:44 pm

Ever hear those stories about a guy who misses his flight, and then the plane crashes? He’ll say: “If I hadn’t missed my flight, I’d be dead.” But you don’t ever hear him add: “That’s why I should always be late for flights.”

Obviously, that logic would be silly. The guy knows his absence from the plane didn’t cause it crash. He just got lucky. He could just as easily have missed his flight, and then have his later flight crash.

Anyway, people don’t seem to understand that logic when it comes to debating the proposed extra wild card format in light of what we saw on Wednesday night.

“If we had an extra wild card this year, we wouldn’t have had the greatest night of baseball ever.”

Strictly speaking, that’s true. But let’s not start to think that the current playoff format made Wednesday night’s events happen, or even made them more likely. We just got lucky.

See, all you need for drama like Wednesday is a line separating the teams that are in from the teams that are out. Doesn’t matter where you draw that line. If you include eight teams or 10 teams, there will still be a line. And you still have just as much chance of two teams being right on the line as we get to Game 162. In fact, there are usually more teams clumped toward the middle than toward the extremes, so by moving the line slightly closer to the middle, it’s more likely there will be more teams gathered around it.

Let’s take a look at the wild card standings on the morning of Sept. 17, when most teams had played about 150 games:



So, with less than two weeks worth of games to go, where would you have wanted to put the line to get maximum drama? At the time, according to coolstandings, the Rays had a 3.2 percent chance of catching Boston and the Cardinals had an 8.1 percent chance of catching the Braves. Sure looked like the two-wild card system was better after 150 games, then a funny thing happened on the way to 162.

My point is that the having two wild cards is no worse than having one wild card when it comes to drama on the wild-card bubble, but the difference — and this is the big thing for me — is that you add another bubble. Winning the division would be a really big deal, because you’d avoid the danger of a one-game wild-card play-in. That would eliminate situations like we saw last year, when the Rays and Yankees were both guaranteed playoff spots, and therefore there was no drama at all as they played the final weekend, even though they were dead even after 161 games. In 2009, the Rockies and Dodgers were playing each other on the final weekend, separated by one game after 160 games, but there was no suspense because both teams had already sprayed champagne to celebrate making the playoffs.

This happens almost every year, but we’ve gotten used to it, so we don’t think about what we’re missing.
Since 2005, the wild card team has finished within three games of first place eight times.

Now, I’m only in favor of the extra wild card if the two wild cards play a one-game, winner-take-all playoff. No best-of-three. Reason I don’t like that is it would draw out the playoffs too much, and give the division winners too much time off. It also wouldn’t be as dramatic to have a best-of-three as one do-or-die game. Really, what baseball needs are more all-or-nothing games.

Yes, it’s a little unfair that you could have your season end in one game, but there are little inequities all over the place. The only really fair thing would be to have all 30 teams in one big pool, have them all play each other equally, and then at the end have the top two play each other in, I don’t know, a best-of-17. Actually, if we only cared about crowning the best team, we’d just give trophy to the team with the best regular season record and forget the postseason.

The reason we chop up the leagues into divisions and have three playoff rounds and relatively short series is to make it exciting. It gives more teams a chance to celebrate, a chance to win even if they weren’t the best team over 162. We’ve already opened that door, so I have no problem opening it a little bit wider.


One Response to “About that playoff format”

  1. Marvin says:

    Should make an interesting change, if they adopt it. What do you think are the chances that the union and MLB will agree when they negotiate the next contract?

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